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EDITORIAL: County must prepare for new wave of population growth

This growth is different.

Southern Nevada’s population is growing again. It’s not the crazy, can’t-keep-up growth of seven years ago, but it comes with new kinds of pressures.

Census data released last month reported Clark County’s over-65 population grew by almost 6 percent between July 2012 and July 2013, four times the county’s overall growth rate of 1.5 percent. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Brian Haynes, the more than 14,000 new retirement-age residents outnumbered new working-age residents.

As baby boomers retire across America, they’ll continue to seek warmer, tax-friendly climates, a profile Nevada still fits — the Silver State has no state income tax and no estate tax.

Meanwhile, the county’s Hispanic population grew by 2.4 percent last year, according to the census data. Hispanics now make up 30 percent of the county’s more than 2 million residents.

Those numbers support other data released last month in the first study produced by the Kenny C. Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, a think tank named for the late former governor of Nevada. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Yesenia Amaro, the Guinn research found Nevada has the fastest-growing Latino population in the region, and that the Latino population is younger than the non-Latino population. Hispanic students comprised 44 percent of the Clark County School District’s enrollment last year, compared with a 28 percent Caucasian enrollment.

“While overall population growth is expected to slow in coming years, Latinos are projected to grow at a faster rate than other racial and ethnic groups,” the Guinn study said.

Should the trends continue over the next decade — and there’s every reason to think they will — Clark County will have an older population while younger generations become more and more Hispanic. And the most urgent needs of those demographics are obvious today.

People age 65 and older are far and away the biggest consumers of health care. The region can’t attract medical professionals fast enough to meet existing demand for health care services, let alone rapid growth in demand driven by the aging of the population. This is a national challenge that will be far more acute in Nevada. The development of a UNLV medical school, the growth of private medical schools and expanded residency training would go a long way toward increasing medical research, boosting the economy’s health care sector and ensuring that all residents don’t suffer reduced access to health care.

Hispanics certainly need health care, but they also need to perform much better in our public schools. Latino achievement trails other racial and ethnic groups, and Latinos comprise the overwhelming majority of CCSD’s English Language Learners. Having the system’s largest demographic perform so poorly drags down the districts overall achievement and prevents the development of a skilled workforce. Educating students who aren’t proficient in English comes with costs. And yes, a great deal of these costs result from illegal immigration. But no immigration solution from Washington will make this challenge go away. And more funding won’t make a difference if effective programs and skilled teachers aren’t in place.

This growth is different. We’ll have to be prepared for it.

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